INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Q FEBRUARY 2009 - by Craig McLean
He's keeping the anti-celebrity flag flying.
Edge remembers Olympic Studios wqell. U2 first came here in 1980, around the time of their debut album, Boy, to record a session for Radio 1.
"We were disappointed afterwards to discover that the session sounded better than our record," says the guitarist with a chuckle.
Nearly three decades on, some things haven't changed. In the studio's cavernous live room, a battered box sits beneath a pile of blinking electronics. This is Edge's trusty Vox amp, a stalwart of every U2 tour and album, including the one on which they're currently working, No Line On The Horizon. The kit around it routes his guitar sound through effects units into his amps.
"That big pile of gear - that's what goes on the road with me," he says with something like fatherly pride. "There's probably five hundred times as much processing power in my foot pedal as there was in the Apollo moon-shot. maybe more."
Edge is still, in many ways, U2's engine. In October 2008, Bono and the guitarist flew to Los Angeles to play with blues giant BB King at a jazz awards ceremony. Bono used the trip to address fourteen thousand women at a conference hosted by Maria Shriver, wife of Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Edge, on the other hand, spent his downtime playing the band's new songs to Rick Rubin, the man who was originally set to produce No Line On The Horizon. "And actually I wrote the chords to the chorus of [new song] Stand Up," adds the guitarist. "So, yeah, it was a good trip."
In person, the forty-seven-year-old guitarist is thoughtful, polite, calm and collected. Determinedly private, he's reluctant to talk about his interests away from U2 (most of which, you suspect, pertain to his five children), though he does admit that the band have become more relaxed as they've become older, more successful and richer.
"We're really very un-precious," he says. "We just wanna get to greatness, and we're not really concerned necessarily about how we get there."
I'm still trying to get my head around exactly what we'll end up coming out with. The record is changing almost on a daily basis. But I think, yeah, that's fair. Right now what seems to be inspiring us is the sense of music being not just an audio experience but almost like you're listening back to something that happened in real time. And that's something that a rock'n'roll band can do: they can bring you into the room when you hear their music. You're hearing what happened. And that kind of an experience is more and more rare. So a song like Stand Up, we're trying to keep it rough. We're trying not to polish it too much. So it's just a great, gutsy performance from everyone. And it's not been put through Pro Tools to the point where it's totally perfect and everything is really tight, which is what tends to happen these days. Cos that really starts to suck the personality out of it.
Stand Up is a swaggering rock'n'roll song with a real groove. There's some dirt in your playing...
Yes, it's totally unreasonable. If you're gonna do a big guitar song I think you have to push it all the way, and that's where we ended up with that one. It started out with this very Moroccan-influenced rhythmic thing. And it's interesting that it's gone from North Africa to rock'n'roll - and in that process you really see how connected they are, the music of Africa and the united States. It's all there.
In 2006, you collaborated with Green Day on a charity cover of The Skids' The Saints Are Coming. Did working with them feed into this album at all?
Everything feeds in. We are so permeable to everything that's happening. I couldn't put my finger on exactly how. But recording that song was a great experience because it brought me back to the urgency and sounds of those early punk records.
Unknown Caller, recorded in Fez, features what your long-time guitar tech Dallas Schoo describes as "one of Edge's major solos in his life - you won't better than that on any other song".
[Laughs] Well, Dallas is much more of a devotee of the electric guitar is some ways than I am. So if he's saying that, that's high praise.
You've worked with Dallas since The Joshua Tree tour. How would you describe that twenty-odd-year relationship?
Really, I think of it in terms of rock climbing. He's the guy at the bottom of he hill at the end of the rope. So if something really terrible happens you're not gonna plummet to your death. I so rely on him, just getting me to the point of a gig day where I get up there and don't have to worry about whether the sound is gonna come out right, or come out at all. Whether the equipment is gonna do what it's supposed to do.
You recently appeared on a documentary about the electric guitar, It Might Get Loud, with Jimmy Page and Jack White.
I'd never met either of them before and didn't know what to expect. turns out that we hit it off amazingly well, considering that we really represent totally different approaches to the instrument. Their idea is that authenticity comes from being true to the original thing, which for them is the blues. My idea of authenticity is that it's about invention and breaking new ground and finding new things that haven't been done with the instrument. But I still think we managed to find a lot of common ground in how hard it is to make anything that's great. And that really in the end you can intellectualise things as much as you want, but it either has it or it doesn't.
Did you learn any new tricks?
You know, what's so fun about seeing a guitar player like Jimmy or Jack play is that they've spent so much time working on a way of making the guitar get up and sing. But it's so different to what I do. particularly when Jimmy started playing Whole Lotta Love. Which of course was for years the theme tune to Top Of The Pops. But his was the real version, it was just one of hose great moments. I'll never forget it.
Broadly speaking, the last two albums were the sound of "classic U2". Did you have some rebuilding or reorientating to do after Pop?
I think after Pop we'd sort of abstracted the sound of the band to such a degree that it felt timely to go back to the fundamentals of what rock'n'roll is all about and what it does. It's really the chemistry of playing. You get that only when people are in a room, in real time, performing together. And that's really what we were experiencing on those two records. And on the new album I think it was time to move on - and, while holding on to that quality, to really take the sound into other areas. And some of the new ideas are slight throwbacks and some of them are really looking to the future. That's OK" as long as when you use ideas from the past you make them of the moment. That you're not just slavishly doing something that was done ten or twenty years ago.
Which guitarists have offered you a "game-changing experience", as you describe it on U2.com, over the past couple of years?
Nick Zinner from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. What he does is what I do, so I actually sometimes get a bit jealous - I go, "Fuck!" It's the minimal thing: the maximum effect for the minimum effort. And he's got a great ear for a guitar part. Other bands? In pure rock'n'roll terms, I like Eagles Of Death Metal. Cold War kids. Fleet foxes? Yeah, I'm not particularly good at those picking styles but I find myself getting inspired watching them, and seeing the acoustic picking, which is something Danny Lanois grew up with. Maybe I should get some lessons.
In 2006, you and Bono shot a home-made on-the-road documentary for U2.com, A Day In The Life Of The Edge. pretty much the first words you say are, "I don't wanna be on the news, man, you wanna be on the news... I'm not a celebrity..."
Knowing your limits is important. And also, why I got into this was to make music. And I'm more than happy to do whatever is necessary - be photographed, be in videos, go to openings, whatever - on the basis of the music itself, and its being known and successful. But I've never really been interested in being famous for being famous. Now, I know tat's not what Bono is - Bon is actually really well known for his great work on multiple levels. We also do that ourselves as individuals, Adam, Larry and myself. But at a certain point Bono realised there was so much more than U2 as an entity could handle, so he just went for it. And I'm a huge supporter of what he does. But I know it wouldn't be my bag. Just in terms of the amount of time and energy it takes. To do what I do, I need to put my focus on the music. And there's only so many hours in the day.
Do the rest of you ever worry that Bono's extra-curricular activities take the focus away from the band?
Not really. He so cherishes the opportunity to come back from all that work and get stuck into music. The thing about what we do in U2 is, it's finite. You can see the beginning, the middle and the end of each part of the process. Whereas what Bono does with the development thing, there is no end to it. He could literally spend every waking hour and you'd still not get to the end of it. So for him it's almost the opposite: he puts as much time as he can spare into all his work for development but actually, it's the time he spends on U2 that he really loves. So he doesn't need to be encouraged. He's the one phoning up saying, "When are we in session next? When's the studio happening?" Cos he really loves it.
Does Bono's political and charitable work mean U2 are subject to greater scrutiny than other bands? You got a rough ride for moving part of your business to the Netherlands in 2006, after the Irish government limited artists' tax exemption to two hundred and fifty thousand pounds...
Somebody made a great comment on that, when that press story broke. "You know, this is a great thing - think of all the musicians who ever ended up going bankrupt and dying in poverty!" A band that actually can look after their affairs and manage their situation well over a period of time is very unusual. It's progress! I don't want to get into it but the stories weren't really accurate about the Dutch thing. It wasn't what people thought.
So it wasn't a tax avoidance scheme?
Well, it was being smart, tax efficiency. But it wasn't what is was described as... It was a different thing.
You came under fire from heritage groups last year when you announced plans to rebuild your Dublin hotel, The Clarence. They said that four Georgian buildings and The Clarence's own Art Deco building would be subject to "virtual demolition" if architect Norman Foster's one hundred and fifty million pound design went through...
We believe in great modern design. And I think Dublin will be better for it. I would argue that in years to come people will be looking back and going, "Well, the ['90s and '00s] was an era of immense economic growth in Ireland - but where are the great buildings?" There aren't any. In previous eras, Dublin had some beautiful buildings that are now on all the postcards. Well, something had to be knocked down to make them back in the eighteenth, nineteenth centuries. I'm against doing away with beautiful old buildings if you're going to put in something ugly. But there are times when you actually have to make compromises in order to to something extraordinary. And I think the building is going to be a great piece of future heritage.
What's happening with the Spider-Man musical that you and Bono are supposed to be working on with director Julie Taymor?
It is happening. Without wanting to diss anybody, I think the musical had its heyday back in the '40s, '50s, '60s era. I don't think there's been anything that interesting done in it since.
Come on, what about High School Musical? You've got five kids. Surely you've been bombarded by it?
I've managed to avoid it completely. Anyway, we've always harboured this sneaky ambition that maybe one day we might try our hand in that area. When we started talking to Julie there was no book, and we went through a process of trying to find the writer that would work for the project. And we ended up finding Glenn Berger, a New York-based scriptwriter. He's come up with some great dialogue. The overall story was really Julie working with Glenn, and Bono and myself riding shotgun with the odd idea here and there - as they do for the songs. We love to delve into other people's creative worlds and figure out how it all happens. We've written a lot of the songs at this point. It's in a pretty good state, and I hope it'll open this year. We're not sure where in the world, but most likely it will be in New York.
Will you and Bono be on hand for rehearsals?
We will be around for a good few weeks, leading up to the start. There won't be a full orchestra - it'll be something like eighteen or twenty musicians: string players, brass, some woodwind. but the core will be a rock'n'roll band. But it is going to be interesting to write for other people. We have already written a lot of songs that are for women to sing. That's a whole other set of challenges, to write in the right key and all those technical things.
But there's the new album before that. What do you want people to get from it?
I want people to listen to it as opposed to just buying it. I want this to be an album people go back to, and really get into, in-depth. Like all the records I love.
Is it the work of a new U2?
Every U2 album is like the first album we ever made, so I have to say yes. But I think we've learnt a few things over the years. So I think it could hopefully be a bringing to bear of all those eureka moments from the past. And I think it could be our best album.
You recently attended a charity dinner held in honour of your Universal records label boss, Lucian Grange. At the charity auction you paid fifteen thousand pounds for a Spitting Image puppet of Jarvis Cocker. Why?
[Laughs] I love Jarvis! He loved our lemon. he came to the Popmart show at Wembley and said [rubbish Jarvis impersonation]: "I wasn't so sure about the lemon beforehand but I really liked it when I saw it in the flesh." To me he's UK rock'n'roll at its best. he's a great writer and a great wit. Where am I gonna keep it? Not sure yet. I've no idea how big it is. I can see my little lad doing animations with it.
Our time is up. Bono has entered the building and there's still a bit of work to do on the album. Downstairs, Steve Lillywhite wants to know which of six current versions of Stand Up they should be pressing on with. In the basement, co-producer Brian Eno is tinkering with Edge and Bono's ragged backing vocals on the serene, six-minute ballad Winter. There may be No Line On The Horizon, but there is a deadline...
THE EDGE IN NUMBERS
The man in the hat's crucial stats.
12 Age when he first picked up a guitar / 45 Number of guitars he takes on the road / 72 Length in seconds of his longest solo (Street Mission) / 375 The number of hats he owns / £12,000,000 Amount he paid for one hundred and forty foot yacht, The Cyan / 1 The number of times he's punched Bono onstage